filtered by: learning

In this Points essay, Data & Society Postdoctoral Scholar Francesca Tripodi explains how communities might define media literacy differently from one another.

“In that moment, I realized that this community of Evangelical Christians were engaged in media literacy, but used a set of reading practices secular thinkers might be unfamiliar with. I’ve seen hundreds of Conservative Evangelicals apply the same critique they use for the Bible, arguably a postmodern method of unpacking a text, to mainstream media — favoring their own research on topics rather than trusting media authorities.”

D&S research analyst Mikaela Pitcan discusses how missing data can impact how students with mental health conditions.

The areas in which data are lacking communicate priorities. However, without concrete data to show a need to prioritize the issue of mental health in schools, there is little incentive to make this issue a priority. Is the failure to account for students with mental illness in a detailed manner the result of stigma? Is it the result of a broader culture that idealizes childhood and is unable to integrate the idea of children struggling with mental illness into our collective consciousness? How might big data be used to identify children in need of mental health treatment in schools to target intervention while protecting students’ privacy? In an age where incredibly detailed information is collected, some students’ needs remain invisible. How can we use the data we have to address the need for the data that is missing?

D&S affiliate Natasha Singer reports that Apple has developed a free coding app for middle-school students, yet it may not be as accessible as advertised.

The Apple coding app is free, but it requires an iPad, the company’s tablet computer, which has declining sales and which many schools and families may not be able to afford.

“How much of the motivation is for selling of product, and what does that do for schools that cannot afford this technology?” asked Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied disparities in computer science education for more than two decades. “The threat is that it is going to replicate current inequities.”

Advertising in Schools

primer | 09.07.16

Maxwell Foxman, Alexandra Mateescu, Monica Bulger

Debates over digital advertising in schools have inherited the frames through which older, pre-digital forms of advertising have been conceptualized, and have also been characterized as departing from them in significant ways. But what, exactly, is new and how have older practices evolved?

D&S research assistant Maxwell Foxman, research analyst Alexandra Mateescu, and researcher Monica Bulger examine how digital advertising can impact students and call for more transparency on how data collection of students is being utilized in a new primer.

D&S researcher Monica Bulger analyzes how ‘power learners’ utilize and contribute to online learning communities with researchers Cristobal Cabo, Jonathan Bright, and Ryan den Rooljen.

We propose two fundamental questions related to the role of these users in learning communities, whom we dub “power learners”. 1) Are power learners naturally committed to the learning community, or do they decide to become more involved progressively? Power users typically show high levels of activity from the beginning of their participation [13]; though studies have also suggested that power users can also learn as they develop [14]. Does the same hold true for online education? 2) Are power learners crucial for starting and maintaining online education communities? In other contexts, such as Wikipedia editing, active early involvement of a small mass of committed participants is crucial for starting collective activities [8]. Is this also the case when it comes to online education?

D&S post-doctoral scholar Caroline Jack analyzes the history of how businesses donated personal computers to classrooms as a way to engage students.

In late 1982, the corporate-funded business education nonprofit Junior Achievement (JA) distributed 121 donated personal computers to classrooms across the United States as part of its new high school course, Applied Economics. Studying JA’s use of computers in Applied Economics reveals how a corporate-sponsored nonprofit group used personal computers to engage students, adapt its traditional outreach methods to the classroom, and bolster an appreciation of private enterprise in American economic life. Mapping the history of how business advocacy and education groups came to adopt software as a means of representing work and commerce offers a new perspective on how systems of cultural meaning have been attached to, and expressed through, computers and computing.

D&S researcher Claire Fontaine writes a compelling piece analyzing whether or not school performance data reinforces segregation.

Data is great at masking its own embedded bias, and school performance data allows privileged parents to reinforce educational inequality. The best interests of some individuals are optimized at the expense of the society. Accountability programs, particularly when coupled with school choice models, serve to keep middle and upper middle class families invested in public schools, but in an uneven and patterned way, causing segregated school environments to persist despite racial and socioeconomic residential diversity.

In “Disentangling the real and potential risks of advertising in schools” D&S research analyst Alexandra Mateescu teases apart the difference between real and hypothetical risks of advertising in schools. Mateescu discusses how traditional forms of advertising in schools are shifting due to technology and highlights factors that are contributing to the increasing complexity of understanding advertising in schools.

In “Class or Race: The Factor that Matters More for Equity,” D&S research analyst Mikaela Pitcan tackles the question of whether racial or class diversity should be considered the most important indicator of equity. Pitcan argues that researchers should instead embrace the complexity inherent within discussions of equity by looking at how the intersections between race and class impact outcomes.

In this primer, D&S researcher Claire Fontaine examines the construct of accountability as it functions in discussions around education reform in the American public education system. The paper considers the historic precursors to accountability, as well as the set of political, economic, cultural, and social conditions that led to test scores becoming the main measure of a school’s success.

In addition to the historical context around accountability, the paper considers important questions about who accountability serves, what the incentive structures are, and how accountability is gamed and resisted. In short, accountability of what, to whom, for what ends, at what cost?


There is an ongoing tension in the American public education system between the values of excellence, equity, and a sustained commitment to efficiency. Accountability has emerged as a framework in education reform that promises to promote and balance all three values. Yet, this frame is often contested due to disagreements over the role of incentives and penalties in achieving desirable change, and concerns that the proposed mechanisms will have significant unintended consequences that outweigh potential benefits. More fundamentally, there is widespread disagreement over how to quantify excellence and equity, if it is even possible to do so. Accountability rhetoric echoes a broader turn toward data-driven decision-making and resource allocation across sectors. As a tool of power, accountability processes shift authority and control away from professional educators and toward policymakers, bureaucrats, and test makers.

The construct of accountability is predicated on several assumptions. First, it privileges quantification and statistical analysis as ways of knowing and is built on a long history of standardized testing and data collection. Second, it takes learning to be both measurable and the product of instruction, an empiricist perspective descended from John Locke and the doctrine that knowledge is derived primarily from experience. Third, it holds that schools, rather than families, neighborhoods, communities, or society at large, are fundamentally responsible for student performance. This premise lacks a solid evidentiary basis and is closely related to the ideology of meritocracy. Finally, efforts to achieve accountability presume that market-based solutions can effectively protect the interests of society’s most vulnerable, another controversial assumption.

The accountability movement reflects the application of free market economics to public education, a legacy of the Chicago School of Economics in the post-World War II era. As a set of policies it was instantiated in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, and reinforced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015. Teaching and learning are increasingly measured and quantified to enable analysis of the relationship between inputs (e.g., funding) and outputs (e.g., student performance).

As has been true in other sectors when data-driven surveillance and assessment practices are introduced, outcomes are not always as expected. It is unclear whether this data push will promote equality of opportunity, merely document inequality, or perhaps even increase racial and socioeconomic segregation. Furthermore, little is understood about the costs of increased assessment on the health and success of students and teachers, externalities that are rarely measured or considered in the march to accountability. States will need to generate stakeholder buy-in and think carefully about the metrics they include in their accountability formulas in order to balance mandates for accountability, the benefits that accrue to students from preserving teacher autonomy and professionalism, the social good of equal opportunity, and public calls for transparency and innovation.

In this Points piece “Real Life Harms of Student Data,” D&S researcher Mikaela Pitcan argues that assessing real harms connected with student data forces us to acknowledge the mundane, human causes.  And she asks: “What do we do now?”

“Overall, cases where student data has led to harms aren’t about data per se, but about the way that people interact with the data…

…accidental data leaks, data being hacked, data being lost, school officials using off-campus information for discipline, oversight in planning for data handling when companies are sold, and faulty data and data systems resulting in negative outcomes. Let’s break it down.”

Student data can and has served as an equalizer, but it also has the potential to perpetuate discriminatory practices. In order to leverage student data to move toward equity in education, researchers, parents, and educators must be aware of the ways in which data serves to equalize as well as disenfranchise. Common discourse surrounding data as an equalizer can fall along a spectrum of “yes, it’s the fix” or “this will never work.” Reality is more complicated than that.

Points: “Does data-driven learning improve equity?” That depends, says Mikaela Pitcan in this Points original. Starting assumptions, actual data use practices, interpretation, context context context — all complicate the story around education data and must be kept in mind if equity is our objective.

Technology, Privacy, and the Future of Education Symposium

video | 03.04.16

Ted Magder, Richard Arum, Anya Kamenetz, Kouross Esmaeli, Natasha Singer, Brett Frischmann, Mitchell Stevens, Elana Zeide, Helen Nissenbaum

Data & Society Fellow Natasha Singer participated in a panel alongside D&S Affiliates Elaina Zeide and Hellen Nissenbaum on the Implications of Data-driven Education as part of the Technology, Privacy, and the Future of Education symposium, hosted by the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt.

The symposium brought together educational specialists, journalists, and academics to open a dialogue around the pedagogical, legal, and ethical repercussions of the use of new technologies in educational environments.

The symposium took place on March 4, 2016.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer on the use of virtual-reality in education, and Google’s virtual field trip system for schools, Expeditions.

The idea of virtual field trips is not new. Some teachers have for years used Microsoft’s Skype videoconferencing service to take students on tours of important places or to invite outside experts to virtually visit their classrooms.

Google’s virtual field trip system, though, is more immersive. And it adds to the array of Google tools that make far-flung places more discoverable — albeit filtered through Google’s lens.

Expeditions uses 360-degree views that stitch together photographs from Google Street View, a product that displays images of roads. The company is also using a 16-camera system, built by GoPro, to create three-dimensional images for the virtual excursions.

D&S fellow Natasha Singer details Clever, a software service — free for schools — that enables schools to send student information to web and mobile apps at the click of a button.

Clever is clearly benefiting from the increasing adoption of education software for prekindergarten through 12th grade in the United States, a market estimated at nearly $8.4 billion last year by the Software and Information Industry Association. It has positioned itself as a partial answer to questions from politicians and parents about how much data those kinds of tools may collect on students and how that information is secured and used.

D&S fellow Natasha Singer explores how the sharing economy, and sites like TeachersPayTeachers.com, are benefitting teachers willing to share the lessons they have created.

At a time when many politicians, technology executives and philanthropists are pushing novel digital tools for education, many teachers are also seeking old-school offline techniques that other teachers have perfected over the years in their classrooms. That has positioned TeachersPayTeachers as a kind of Etsy for education.

Believing the Unbelievable: Understanding Young People’s Information Literacy Beliefs and Practices in the United States

Journal of Children and Media | 07.30.15

Miriam J. Metzger, Andrew J. Flanagin, Alex Markov, Rebekah Grossman, Monica Bulger

In this Journal of Children and Media article, D&S researcher Monica Bulger seeks to address the dynamics of information evaluation among youth, investigating the attitudes of youth (aged 11–18) toward information credibility, their information evaluation practices, and the effects of developmental and demographic differences and information literacy training on young people’s information evaluation skills.

Abstract: Young people are increasingly turning to the Internet more than to traditional media and information sources to find information. Yet, research demonstrates suboptimal online information literacy among youth today, suggesting potential shortcomings in young people’s information consumption behaviors. To assess this, this study investigates several predictors of young people’s success in online information evaluation, including their awareness of credibility problems associated with digital information, their use of specific information evaluation practices, and their accuracy in credibility assessment. Results from a study of 2,747 11–18-year-old Internet users indicate both expected and surprising influences of young people’s cognitive development, decision-making style, demographic background, and digital information literacy training on their information evaluation awareness, skills, and practices. Theoretical implications and those for redesigning online information literacy interventions are discussed.

D&S researcher Monica Bulger, Jonathan Bright, and Cristóbal Cobo investigate why some Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) users organize face-to-face meetings, exploring the hypothesis that meetup invites would reflect students’ learning goals. They also investigate the extent to which these patterns vary between industrialised and developing countries.

Abstract: Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer the possibility of entirely virtual learning environments, with lectures, discussions, and assignments all distributed via the internet. The virtual nature of MOOCs presents considerable advantages to students in terms of flexibility to learn what they want, when they want. Yet despite their virtual focus, some MOOC users also seek to create face-to-face communities with students taking similar courses or using similar platforms. This paper aims to assess the learner motivations behind creation of these offline communities. Do these face-to-face meetings represent an added extra to the learning experience, with students taking advantage of the context of the MOOCs to create new personal and professional connections? Or, are offline meetups filling a gap for students who feel that not all learning can take place online? We also assess the extent to which these patterns vary between developing and industrialised regions, thus testing the claim that MOOCs are helping to democratise access to education around the world. Our research is based on a unique source of socially generated big data, drawn from the website ‘meetup.com’, which gives us a data set of over 4000 MOOC related events taking place in over 140 countries around the world over a two year period. We apply a mixed methods approach to this data, combining large-scale analysis with more in-depth thematic hand coding, to more fully explore the reasons why some learners add a ‘real’ component to their virtual learning experience.

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